A short story written by Harrison Grady
The carriage bounced and splashed across the wet cobblestone, making an earsplitting “crash” with every bump and pothole encountered. Dim, flickering lampposts passed on either side, providing mediocre illumination to the dark, foggy London night. Tobias Lange, who sat uncomfortably in the back of the carriage, could hear nothing but the sound of his own raspy breathing and the wheels’ crashing as he watched the lampposts roll by. He coughed and wheezed as the sooty London air continued to relentlessly fill his lungs, all while the pungent odor of the city rushed in and out of his nose.
Tobias was only in his mid-twenties, but could easily pass for being nearly forty. His slicked back, short black hair was already accompanied by streaks of grey. His once smooth and handsome face was weathered, with small crow’s feet peeking out from the sides of his partially bloodshot eyes. Tired dark circles hung beneath them.
“How much longer till we arrive,” Tobias asked, poking his head out of the door to see the driver.
Tobias looked past the lampposts at the line of red-bricked terraced houses that also passed the carriage as it rolled and crashed along. “They look well enough,” he thought. Tobias knew that even if his uncle had left him a large wooden box to move into, he would take it without a second thought. Anything was better than nothing.
After bracing himself for another crash, Tobias took a small drink from his flask. He felt the soothing, warm liquid slide down his throat and clear it of any soot that was slowly caking its walls.
“Hitting the bottle already, old boy,” asked a high pitched voice next to him, “We’ve only been in town not three minutes!”
Tobias turned his aching neck to see who spoke, then gave his eyes a roll. Sitting with one leg over the other next to him and giving a large, toothy grin was a strange creature, but not strange to Tobias. It wore an outfit that would suit the wealthiest of English gentlemen: a sleek grey waist coat beneath a black jacket, and black slacks. A black bowler cap sat upon its head. It had leathery grey skin, bright smoldering red eyes, and a mouthful of sharp, white, shining teeth. A polished black cane with a marble pommel lay across its lap, held tight by a yellow clawed hand. Tobias said nothing back to the creature.
“I just hope this place is better than the last pile of bricks we lived in,” the creature said, picking its teeth with a long yellow claw. “Those people were bastards for kicking you out, but it’ll be marvelous to be away from those pains in the rear. What were their names again?”
“Mother and Father,” Tobias said under his breath, then took another drink. The liquid was not soothing this time; it was nothing more of a reminder of the life he was leaving behind. “Now shut up, Fleck. You can talk all you want when we get to the house.” The carriage came to a halt.
“Here we are sir,” the driver said. He climbed down from his seat at the reigns and opened Tobias’s door. “Number 17 Abbotswell Street. Need help carrying anything up?”
Tobias looked over at the red brick terrace house they were stopped in front of. Soot and ash clung to nearly every surface, giving it a sickly look. Two bay windows, one on each floor, looked inside. Compared to his parents manor this place looked no better than a tin can with a chimney, but Tobias did not care. He had heard tales before of parents disowning their children and leaving them to rot in a mental ward; this seemed like the much better alternative. “No, I can manage.” He grabbed his one small trunk from at his feet and left the carriage. The creature, Fleck, was nowhere to be seen.
“Trust you’re fine on your own then,” the driver asked.
“Yes, thank you for the ride.”
“My pleasure. Never been paid so much for one trip. Your parents are generous people,” and with that, the carriage clopped off down the dark street.
“Come on!” Tobias turned, startled, to see Fleck already standing in front of the house’s white door. He rapped his cane on the wood. “Let’s see what there is to see!”
Tobias gripped the handle of his trunk tightly and glanced around for any possible onlookers. When he saw none, he responded, “I know this place is no Warwickshire, but I’m sure we can make the most of it.” Warwickshire, birthplace of famous William Shakespeare, was the only destination Fleck ever talked about. Tobias made his way to the front door.
“How marvelous it would have been to open the shop not a block from old Willy’s home, or to read and recite a sonnet on his doorstep,” Fleck said with a sigh, leaning longingly on his cane. “I suppose London will have to do.”
Tobias pushed past Fleck and went through the door, which creaked loudly on its hinges. Right inside, on the other side of the threshold, was a rough looking staircase leading to the upper room. At the top of the staircase Tobias could see the open door to a small empty closet. To the right of the threshold, the lower level of the house consisted of a small, white, and rather comfortable looking loveseat in front of a sooty, crumbling fireplace, and a small kitchen complete with a round and ugly dining table. Fleck let out a relaxed sigh as he sank into the strangely clean and expensive looking loveseat. “If only your uncle were still alive,” he said, “I would love to know where he stole this seat from!”
“Doesn’t look as bad as I thought it would,” Tobias swatted down a large cobweb on the cracked mantle of the fireplace. After a quick glance about the unimpressive kitchen he went upstairs. The old wooden steps creaked beneath his boots. He only hoped that they wouldn’t give way. The second floor, aside from the empty closet, contained nothing more than a queen sized bed which, like the loveseat, outshone the rest of the house with a beautifully carved headboard and clean, rose patterned comforter. “Uncle Avery must’ve robbed a furniture store before he passed,” Tobias said under his breath.
There was a loud scraping across the wood floor as a large trunk slid out from beneath the bed. “Fleck,” Tobias said, approaching the trunk, “are you under there?” No answer. Assuming his annoying parasitic companion was scavenging underneath the bed, Tobias crouched down and popped the hinged to the trunk. “Jesus!” He yelled and fell backwards as Fleck popped out from the trunk’s jumbled collection of shoes and rapped him in the shins with his cane.
“Well,” Fleck said, looking about at the mess of shoes now scattered across the floor, “if the people of London don’t care for your fortune telling, we can always open a store selling off your Uncle’s useless junk.”
“How the hell did you get in there?!” Tobias yelled as he got to his feet.
“Same way I got up here without you seeing!”
“And how was that,” Tobias asked, getting annoyed.
“I dunno. Anyway, how far is our new shop from here?”
“Not far. I discussed everything with the owner last week when you were gone. It’s on the corner of Basire Street.” Tobias kicked off his boots and sat down on the bed. Fleck flicked his cane and closed the trunk with a crash. “It’ll be a nice enough little place,” Tobias said, stretching his arms and cracking his aching neck. “It has plenty of room to move around in, and even comes with a small table and chairs for us to use. Apparently someone lives underneath on the lower level. The owner’s child, I believe he said.”
“Well, we’ll see,” said Fleck. He through his cane into the air and spun around. By the time it fell back into his hand it had changed into a long, dangling nigh cap, and he was wearing a striped nightgown to accompany it. “Can’t wait to get back to business.”
“Only if I am to retain this beautiful complexion,” Fleck smiled and disappeared into a small cloud of black smoke.
Tobias let out a small sigh of relief and descended to the first floor to drown the memories and sorrows of the day away.
The following morning Tobias was awoken by a sharp pain in his side. It was, as he suspected, a blow from Fleck’s cane. The short creature stood over him with a long, thin, toothless grin and wide staring eyes. Tobias stared back with his own bloodshot, annoyed and tired eyes.
“I’d ask you how you slept, but I daresay you even remember falling asleep,” Fleck said.
Tobias stood up from the cold hardwood floor he passed out on, nearly kicking over his half empty bottle of gin. He looked around and cracked his back. The chair he had been sitting in at the kitchen table was lying on its side. Tobias could not even remember a time that this all would have surprised him.
“Bright side is,” Fleck said, picking up the fallen chair, “there’s no vomit to be scraped from the floor or side of your face this time. Anyway, let’s go!”
“Hold on, give me a bit!” Tobias clutched his pounding head. “I need to eat something, and I’m not even wearing my outfit.”
“Well put it on and you can buy something from a cart on the way there! We didn’t even bring food. Just hurry!”
Tobias grunted with annoyance and went upstairs with his trunk. He knew if he didn’t hurry it would end in a smack from Fleck’s cane.
As the two of them walked down the crowded cobblestone street to the shop, Tobias watched the people walking and talking past them. Trying to keep down the bloater he was convinced was only half cooked, Tobias couldn’t help but feel lost and alone amongst the crowd. He knew that the minute he tried to converse with anyone of interest, Fleck would find some way to ruin it. Too many times had Tobias scared off someone new by yelling at Fleck on accident and making them think he was a lunatic who talked to himself. Every person who brushed past, and every couple who sat sipping tea and laughing were just a reminder of what he couldn’t have, and who he couldn’t talk to.
“There it is,” Fleck shouted happily and pointed his cane. There, on the corner of the street was their new shop. A set of side stairs led to the second level of the building where, hanging over the door, a sign read “Tobias Lange Cartomancy” in fresh gold lettering. “They even painted us a sign!”
“I suppose its official then,” Tobias let a small smile crawl across his face as he looked up at the sign. This would mark the first time that their cartomancy business would see anything more than a small stand or tent at a passing fairground, or by the sea. “At only two pounds for rent we certainly found a good place. We should say hello to whoever lives below us before settling in. You stay quiet!” He gave a small nod of his head to a passerby looking at him funny.
“Now Toby, you know I never promise anything,” Fleck said with a sharp chuckle.
Tobias walked briskly up to the door of the lower level and gave it a few loud knocks. He looked down at Fleck and placed a shushing finger of warning against his lips.
The door opened not ten seconds later with a silent, fluid motion that reminded Tobias how terrible his own was. He was then greeted by the most beautiful face he had ever laid eyes upon.
“Why hello,” said the women looking back at him, “how may I help you?”
“Hello,” Tobias said with a smile and blushing cheeks.
The woman, who he assumed was the owner’s daughter, was dressed very well for that area of the city. She wore a simple white, but very clean and well sown hoopskirt, a beautiful necklace of emerald and gold, and light blue silk gloves. Her face had light makeup, deep hazel eyes, and was partly covered by thick, long, and wavy black hair.
“My name is Tobias Lange,” Tobias finally stumbled through. “I am the man renting the upper room from your father.”
“Oh! You’re the magician!”
“Well, I’m more of a fort-
“I’m Anna,” she said, cutting him off. “I thought you were coming tomorrow?”
“Well,” he looked down at the little demon who made him come as soon as possible, “I just couldn’t wait.”
“Well everything is set up upstairs,” Anna said, pointing a gloved finger upward. “Only thing missing is a customer, but I’m sure that won’t be a problem for long.”
“Thank you very much, ma’am,” Tobias said happily. “You’re too kind.”
“You’re most welcome Mr. Lange,” she said with a playful curtsy.
“Call me Toby,” Tobias said. “If you need us… Me, if you need me I’ll be upstairs settling in. And if you wish for a reading, I’ll give you one on the house.”
“Well thank you, Toby,” she gave a small grin, showing off a row of white teeth, “and good luck!”
Tobias stifled a yelp as she left, having received a hearty thwack from Fleck’s cane.
“Toby?” Fleck remarked loudly after the door shut. “I’m the only one you’ve ever let call you that.”
“First off,” Tobias started, leading the way up the side steps, “I never said you could call me that. Secondly, she is our neighbor, and I think she deserves that respect.”
“Hmm, I don’t think that respect is all you wanted to be giving her. She’s too nice. Too polite,” Fleck said, sourly.
“Well, maybe you could learn something from her. You did an exceptional job staying quiet by the way.”
“I was too busy keeping an eye on her to bother you. Did you hear her call you a magician?”
“Its fine, genres get mixed up all of the time, now shut up about her and let’s open the shop.” Tobias walked underneath of the sign and went through the door. Inside was a rather bleak, open room with no furnishings aside from a small, polished, round wood table and two chairs in the center.
“I think the fact that there are floorboards instead of soil beneath our feet says enough,” Fleck remarked, tapping his cane on the floor. “Like the elderly woman in the moth eaten old shawl downstairs said, now we only need customers.”
Tobias smiled as he walked his trunk over to the table. “It’s still early, Fleck. I give it less than an hour before we have someone sitting in that chair and coughing up schillings.”
“If only people could see me. I could be a marvelous advertiser.”
“I think scaring people away is more of what you’d be marvelous at.” Tobias clicked open his trunk, retrieved the deck of cards from atop his clothes, and sat down in his chair ready to wait patiently.
Almost three hours later, not a minute past noon, the door swung on its hinges and in stepped a portly gentleman. He had greying short hair, and a chin of peppery stubble. Judging by his groomed and cleaned luxurious suit and polished black leather shoes, Tobias thought this man looked like he had a few coins to spend.
“Welcome!” Tobias said graciously. He stood from his chair and crossed to the man. “As the sign may have given away, my name is Tobias Lange.” He shook the man’s hand firmly.
“Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Lange,” the man replied. “My name is Arthur Paisley. I own the brewery down the street. So, you do magic?”
“Well,” Tobias took Mr. Paisley’s arm and led him to the table, “Cartomancy is more fortune telling.”
“Well whatever it is, what’s the charge,” he asked, taking his seat. “I didn’t see anything listed outside.”
“It’s only three schillings for a reading,” Tobias said gesturing to the deck of cards in the center of the table.
Mr. Paisley tossed the three coins on the table. Tobias gracefully scooped them up.
“First, before the cards, I’m going to get to know who you are.” Tobias gently grabbed Mr. Paisley’s hands and looked into the deeply puzzled customer’s eyes.
At that moment, Fleck came out from the corner and stood next to the table. With both hands pommeling the top of his cane he stared up at Mr. Paisley. His eyes became a cloudy grey, and Fleck’s body became stiff as a board. After just a few seconds, he relaxed and his eyes settled back into their deep red. “This gentleman here is 51 years old.”
“You are,” Tobias started, not breaking eye contact with Mr. Paisley. “Almost or already only 51 years of age.”
Mr. Paisley’s puzzled look changed to one of amazement. “Why, yes! Only was the word of choice,” he chortled.
The reading continued and Mr. Paisley finally got up and left the room with the same amazed look on his face.
“Well he seemed to enjoy himself,” Fleck said after the door closed. “Even if we only earn those three schillings a day we could pay rent and make a couple of pounds for ourselves!”
“Ourselves,” Tobias asked, “You don’t need any money.” He put the deck of cards back together.
“You know what I-
“Hello, Toby,” She said, closing the door behind her. “I had a minute and saw Mr. Paisley from down the street leaving. How did it go?”
“It went great! Thank you.” Tobias could see Fleck frowning out of the corner of his eye. “I should be free for at least a few minutes, would you like your free reading now?”
“Why sure, if you have the time,” she walked over and took a seat. “How does this work?”
“We don’t have time for her, Tobias,” Fleck spat. He was giving Tobias a horrendously disapproving look.
Tobias ignored him. He could feel his nerves setting in as he took Anna’s gloved hands. “Well, first I get to know you a bit.”
“You’re sure this is part of the reading,” she said with a chuckle.
Tobias laughed nervously. He shot a quick glance at Fleck, who seemed uninterested in participating. He kicked at Fleck’s cane, trying to be inconspicuous. The creature did nothing.
“Of course,” Tobias said, still trying to get Fleck’s help. Finally, he gave in.
“Fine,” Fleck said begrudgingly. He turned to face Anna and went into his trance for a few seconds. When he came back out, after his eyes turned back to red, he had a mix of confusion, shock and worry on his face. “She, umm…”
“Hang on,” Tobias said with a slightly annoyed tone, “It’s taking longer than usual for the information to find me.”
“Take your time,” Anna said politely.
“She’s a murderess, Toby,” Fleck said plainly. His usual playful tone was gone. “She’s killed the last four poor souls who rented out this room.”
“Now I’m just sorting out the lies,” Tobias said, increasingly annoyed.
“You don’t want to believe me, I know, but of all the things I’ve done over the years, I haven’t lied.”
“Yes you have,” Tobias thought. He wanted nothing more than to kick the cane right out from under the creature. But he just gritted his teeth and continued looking into Anna’s beautiful, hazel eyes.
“I’m just trying to protect you damn it! Don’t believe me,” Fleck ducked and pointed beneath the table, “there’s a knife sitting right in her lap. If I were you, I’d take yours out too. Or that little pistol of yours. You know I can’t do it, Toby.”
“You, umm…” Tobias felt his heart pick up its already fast pace. He was now shooting short, nervous glances at Fleck. “I’m not sure what to believe of what information is finding me…”
“That’s alright,” Anna said, “If you want, I can come back later.”
“You can call me a liar, Toby, but this isn’t dice and it’ll only get you killed.” Fleck was staring at Tobias with a frown and stern eyes.
Tobias could feel a bead of sweat rolling down the side of his face. “No!” He said quickly as Anna began leaning back in her chair. She stopped, both hands still at the edge of the table. “Sorry, I haven’t ever had two customers so close together before…”
“Oh that’s alright,” she said. “I’ll just come back later on when you’ve rested.”
Tobias saw one of her hands slipping from the table to her lap.
“THE KNIFE!” Fleck shouted with wide, terror stricken eyes.
Tobias felt a surge of fear charge through him and his heart skipped a beat. In one swift, quick motion he reached down, took the small pocket pistol from his boot and let off its single shot. SNAP! He watched as Anna let out a short cry in pain and fell backwards from her seat. Tobias sat, breathing heavily and still pointing his pistol out in front of him.
“Hmm,” Fleck said, “I think we may need to find a new place to do business.”
“Without responding, saying a word, or even blinking, Tobias stood from his chair and walked around the table. There, lying cold and motionless next to the toppled chair, was Anna in a pool of blood. Laying on her corset clinched stomach, was a white folded fan.
“Where… is… the knife,” Tobias choked.
“There wasn’t one. I lied. Now let’s get back home before anyone else shows up.” Fleck hopped carelessly over the body and walked to the door.
Tobias couldn’t find words to say, nor a feeling to feel. He looked over at Fleck; over at what he was stuck with.
“Come on, Toby. You didn’t need her anyway. You have me!” Fleck stepped aside as Tobias opened the door.
“I was saving that shot for myself.”
“You take enough shots every night, what’s one less.” The two of them left the room, closing the door gently behind them.